The Best Movie Ever: Biblical Epics
The Bible. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. It’s one of the most widely read, widely upheld texts on the planet, acting as the foundation for Christianity and its various denominations, and you know what that means to Hollywood: dollar signs. If there’s one thing studios love, it’s a best-seller.
That’s a little cynical, but as inspirational and influential as The Bible has been to the world at large, it’s also been an enormous boon to filmmakers, who frequently adapt its many timeless stories into motion pictures with critical and box office success. The tales are big, the canvas just as much so, and it’s inspired a whole genre of films called “Biblical Epics,” like this weekend’s release of Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings.
But what’s The Best Biblical Epic Ever? We asked our resident film critics here at CraveOnline – William Bibbiani, Witney Seibold and Brian Formo – to each pick one film that they would choose as the pinnacle of the genre. Their choices are their own, and they are about to defend them. You can decide which of them are right, or stick up for a different Biblical epic altogether, by voting at the bottom of the page.
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Witney Seibold’s Pick: Ben-Hur (1959)
Cecil B. DeMille famously said that all it took to make a ripping epic was a few pages from The Bible. And why not? The capital-B Book with the periodic red writing is filled with epic struggles of character, tales of creation and destruction, wars and violence, lessons and parables, and features – without hyperbole – the single most important figure in all of Western Civilization.
The golden age of the Biblical Epic was most certainly the 1950s. Thanks to the success of Samson & Delilah – the highest grossing film of 1949 – Hollywood went decidedly Bible-happy for a full decade, making some of the largest, most boldly demonstrative feature films ever churned out by major studios. All of a sudden, movies became much longer, the technicolor became all the more glitzy, and the screens became wider (The Robe was the first film to be shot in widescreen). Not all of these films were great, to be sure, but their out-loud drama and commitment to larger-than-life stories of the Good Lord’s word are most certainly admirable.
In my mind, the crown jewel of the 1950s Bible craze is William Wyler’s breathtaking and gloriously junky 1959 New Testament epic Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. The film begins with the Nativity and ends shortly after the Crucifixion, but is actually about one of Jesus’ contemporaries, the Jew Judah Ben-Hur, played by Charlton Heston, the world’s least Jewish man. Ben-Hur, after rebuffing an old Roman friend (Stephen Boyd), and after almost accidentally injuring a Roman politician, is separated from his wife and daughter, sold into slavery, becomes an escapee, then a charioteer, and eventually works his way back home. This is epic storytelling at its finest, encompassing big scenarios and big characters played by big actors. The film’s chariot race sequence is one of the best action sequences ever filmed. The Christ imagery begins to hit hard and heavy in the film’s second half (and the flick runs a jaunty 212 minutes), and it feels decidedly tacked-on. But by then, the film has us in its melodramatic spell.
The best Jesus movie remains Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew. The best Biblical epic, however, remains Ben-Hur.
William Bibbiani’s Pick: Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)
It probably says a lot about me that when I am asked to choose the best biblical epic ever made, I choose a satire. And to be sure, there are plenty of wonderful motion pictures that treat the scripture with more severity – Intolerance, The Last Temptation of Christ and The Ten Commandments among them (to varying extents) – but that plethora of serious films about Christian history only makes me want to veer towards a playful approach more. Besides, although many seem to think that Monty Python’s Life of Brian is borderline (if not altogether) sacrilegious, I beg to differ.
The story goes that a child was born in a manger on Christmas Day, just across the road from Jesus Christ. Born into the same era, reacting to the same injustice, comes Brian, a Jewish man who longs to rid his homeland of Roman oppressors. That the Romans brought his culture enormous prosperity – including sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health (and peace) – is beside the point. To Brian at least. Audiences get the hint easily, in the film’s funniest and most enlightening exchange.
Monty Python’s Life of Brian is, first and foremost, a historical satire about the many misapprehensions contemporary people have about the time period in which Christ was born. And although Brian (Graham Chapman) finds himself confused with a messiah, and plunged into the religious fervor of the era, it’s actually very reverent to Jesus Christ himself. He appears, briefly, giving the sermon on the mount, already being misinterpreted by the folks at the back who couldn’t quite hear him properly. Brian meets an ex-leper, cured by Christ, who is ticked off that the Lord and Savior has made it harder to beg for a living. It skewers the madness of the time period that needed a savior the most, showing just how wrong society can go without a reasonable guiding hand.
And of course the closing musical number, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” sung by a score of crucified men, is the ultimate irony, but also a pointed message. Christ himself went through enormous torture to save our souls. The image of violence is inextricably linked with a message of positivity and hope. Monty Python just added a catchy tune.
Brian Formo’s Pick: The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
The Last Temptation of Christ is the most human of all biblical epics. And so, for me, that makes it the best biblical epic ever. Unlike many biblical epics, Martin Scorsese’s film isn’t epic in numbers. Most of the crowds that Jesus delivers sermons to are quite small. I suppose that Temptation is an epic moreso because of the fanatical anti-Christ response (which included bomb threats on theaters). It’s been 26-years since the film was released and many still resist to see it because it fills in some human areas that, in the Bible, are very short. It’s Jesus’ feats that get the most breadth. But for many, it’s Jesus’ own ability to come to a sacrificial conclusion that makes him extraordinary.
Jesus (Willem Dafoe) isn’t only decent and humble in Temptation, he’s also paranoid. He’s got a pretty big weight on his shoulders: die for the sins of all humanity. Sometimes that feels like a burden. So Scorsese’s Brooklyn-accented squad of apostles, led by Harvey Keitel, knock some sense into him. Which is easy for them to do, they’re not the ones ordained to die. Look, Jesus isn’t a wimp or a sinner (more on that in a minute) in The Last Temptation of Christ. He’s a human whose humanity sometimes, occasionally, sometimes! comes in conflict with his deity prophecy. If you adhere to the bible, that internal conflict is even there: Matthew 27:46 (“Why Have you forsaken me?”). Scorsese gave us the best Jesus (despite the blonde hair, blue eyes of Dafoe) because he’s given us the most human Jesus.
His last temptation is from the devil, who tempts Jesus by promising to grant him a fully human form. What those who’ve never seen it take particular umbrage to is that Jesus has sex with Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey) in an image of his potential human life that the devil shows him. First of all, this is the devil tempting him, but more importantly it’s Family Man Jesus as the temptation. It isn’t some dirty image filmed erotically, it’s just a few seconds of sacred procreation. And again, it’s a temptation from the devil.
Any fundamentalist who can’t view this film is denying themselves a complete portrait of a man who did the ultimate Christian thing: he denied the devil until his dying moment. And then he truly sheds his humanity into full-fledged deity. “It is accomplished,” is what Jesus says, dying on the cross. Indeed. Scorsese shows the crucifixion as a final task, because that’s how it was ordained. And it was accomplished. But not before some temptation, some trepidation, and some angst were mixed in between moments of grand human decency.